James K.A. Smith opens his wonderful and ground-breaking book on worship and formation, Desiring the Kingdom, by inviting readers to imagine that alien anthropologists from Mars come to earth to study every aspect of humanity. Because they are especially interested in what humanity worships and venerates, they follow a large group of people into what they believe to be a sanctuary. The Martians assume it must be an important place of worship because it has so many cars in the parking lot, and once inside, there are no clocks on the wall (so people can lose themselves in worship), and the only windows into the building are in the ceiling (inviting everyone’s gaze upward toward heaven).
For several pages, Smith describes all the various aspects of worship and adoration discovered by the alien researchers: the liturgical colors change with the seasons; maps (like bulletins or worship folders) are available to guide one’s spiritual journey; acolytes and priests are present to welcome worshipers to help them find (in the “racks”) what they are looking for and to receive their offerings. Most significantly, in this great cathedral, there are numerous chapels open to worshippers, each aligned with iconic windows. However, rather than having flat one-dimensional windows (like stained-glass windows) offering transcendent views of the holy, these chapels have unique three-dimensional figures in their windows, offering robust pictures of the good life.
It takes the reader only a couple of pages to realize that, in Smith’s very descriptive illustration, the alien anthropologists have inadvertently followed their human subjects into a shopping mall and not into a church. The point is clear. The local shopping mall is not just a neutral space to buy things—it is, in many ways, also a place of worship, a place that shapes our imagination, captures our heart, and tries to teach us what to love.
The point of James Smith’s alien story is not just that we should all be aware of the way the shopping mall is trying to form our desires and loves; it also reminds us that all day, every day, we are participating in practices that are forming our hearts. Similarly, we must remember that a key purpose for attending worship in Christian sanctuaries is to understand God-ordained practices that teach us to desire and seek first the kingdom of God and form our hearts in Him.
Nazarenes have a word for when we learn to seek first the kingdom of God with our whole being and when our hearts are formed wholly in the love of God: sanctification.
However, sometimes in focusing on the crisis of deciding to be made holy, holiness people have failed to remember the important role that practices (particularly worship practices) play in the ongoing sanctification, transformation, and re-habiting of a person’s life.
In his great sermon on “The Means of Grace,” John Wesley wrote, “All who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the means he hath ordained.” When one reads Wesley’s sermons, letters, and other reflections on worship and the “means of grace,” one finds him caught in a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, Wesley openly rejects the coldness of religious formalism. In his sermon, he decries those who “mistake the means for the end.” He pities those who focus on “doing those outward works, [rather] than in a heart renewed after the image of God.”1 In other words, Wesley recognizes that the practices of worship can become empty rituals devoid of the Spirit’s transforming power.
However, on the other hand, Wesley sees the rejection of those practices of worship (means of grace) as failing to obey God’s clear command. Such omissions miss opportunities for God’s Spirit to continue transforming believers. For Wesley, by participating in these “outward signs, words, or actions” one opens oneself to the “preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” of God.2 To put it simply, while Wesley was suspicious of and rejected formal religion that failed to bring about inner transformation, he nevertheless thought of no better methods (he was a “Method-ist” after all) than the historical sacraments and practices – rightly used – for receiving and experiencing the ongoing sanctifying work of the Spirit in life.
All news, information networks, websites, and social media will have inherent bias. Most of these mediums of information have built-in algorithms that are designed to feed us information that agrees with our own viewpoint. This reality can lead individuals to have completely different worldviews from each other based on what content they consume. The competing and dominating voices of the world can squeeze our imaginations and perspectives into their mold. Worship invites God’s people to be sanctified – set apart – so that we can stop being squeezed into those molds but rather be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). In thinking about worship and its connection to the work of sanctifying grace, my intention is not to turn people into liturgical worshippers. However, we need to pay attention to the missing opportunities for formation and sanctification because of either neglect or absence of the historic means of grace. We also need to pay attention to the ways we are shaped by less formal worship traditions, i.e., informal worship practices with extemporaneous prayers.
In one of my theology classes, I ask students to attend a more formal worship service, i.e., liturgical rituals and ceremonies with written prayers. The goal of this assignment is not to decide whether they “like” this kind of worship. For me, that question is irrelevant. Rather, I have them reflect on what the various worship practices are trying to do to them. Here is the kind of question I have them reflect on: “If I were to attend this church for 10 years, how would this worship change me?”
I think that is the question people desiring to be holy should be asking more often. I believe we usually evaluate our worship experience around questions like, “Did I like this?” or “Did I agree with everything?” Perhaps the question that holiness people should be asking is, “how is my regular participation in the means of grace forming me to love God more fully and my neighbor more completely?” To that question, John Wesley would say, “Amen.”
T. Scott Daniels is senior pastor of Nampa College Church of the Nazarene in Nampa, Idaho, USA.
1. John Wesley, “The Means of Grace” (Sermon 16), The Wesleyan-Holiness Digital Library, https://www.whdl.org/means-grace-sermon-16 (accessed October 10, 2020).
Holiness Today, January/February 2021
Please note: This article was originally published in 2021. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.